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Wall Street Journal
July 5, 2000

Case of Lost-and-Found Disk Drives
Demonstrates Weakness of U.S. Systems for Protecting Secrets

by Neil King Jr.
Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON-- Was the problem of the lost-and-found hard drives at Los Alamos the result of not enough secrecy-- or too much?

A failed effort to reform the Department of Energy's secrecy policy suggests the latter.

President Clinton's first energy secretary, Hazel O'Leary, tried to boost controls on the most sensitive information-- such as the nuclear-design plans contained on the hard drives-- while beating back the number of overall secrets. Her argument was simple: If everything is deemed a secret, officials will be less likely to protect the really important ones.

After three years of bickering, the Pentagon balked at the proposal last year, saying it would require costly new storage facilities and more people with top-secret clearance. Efforts to whittle away at the millions of documents deemed secret have failed, beaten down by bureaucratic inertia and politicized disasters such as the Wen Ho Lee spy case at the Los Alamos, N.M., nuclear-weapons laboratory.

Mass-Produced Secrets

Ms. O'Leary's plan was just one of many put forward by a bipartisan cast in recent years to revamp how the U.S. manages its towering mound of classified information. Except for a few presidential orders, all have failed. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to churn out new secrets at a mind-boggling clip. In 1988, 7.2 million bits of information-- ranging from cables on the minutiae of diplomatic life to Osama bin Laden's search for chemical weapons-- were stamped secret.

"We have a broken system that is manufacturing way too many secrets," says Mark Bradley, a staff member for New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who has led the antisecrecy crusade for years.

The case of the two Los Alamos hard drives, lost and then mysteriously found last month, shows how scarred the system now is with partial efforts at reform.

Classified as "secret," the hard drives contained reams of information on U.S. and other countries' nuclear-weapons designs. This included data on how to defeat safety devices intended to stop a terrorist from exploding a stolen weapon. Yet dozens of people could remove the hard drives from a high-security vault without leaving any record, thanks to cost-saving measures begun under President Bush.

Those changes were put in place under pressure from U.S. contractors, who complained that strict tracking of all secrets was becoming increasingly burdensome and expensive. Instead of reducing the number of secrets to be tracked, the half-reform cut back on security measures.

Ms. O'Leary sought to strengthen the system. Her idea was to increase controls around a core of highly sensitive nuclear information even while declassifying lesser secrets. Experts say the plan, known as the Higher Fences Initiative, would almost certainly have tightened controls on the hard drives by boosting their classification to "top secret."

But the Department of Defense-- which shares responsibility for nuclear weapons with the Energy Department-- opposed the plan. The Pentagon called the procedure overly bureaucratic and expensive, and a hindrance to discourse between scientists and foreign governments.

Republican Criticisms

Many Republicans continue to blame Ms. O'Leary for giving away too much information when she declassified documents going back to the 1950s. Others say the most recent Los Alamos debacle has vindicated her arguments. "What we have now are often-stupid secrets piling up all over the place and leaking out the sides," says Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "Either we limit the flow of new secrets and concentrate on what matters, or we have problems," he says.

The end of the Cold War promised a new age of openness. Even the Central Intelligence Agency, in 1992, said it was ready to share more information with reporters, historians and the interested public. In 1994, President Clinton ordered bulk release of World War II-era records and Cold War satellite imagery. He followed up the next year with an executive order mandating the massive declassification of documents 25 years or older.

Even Capitol Hill hawks such as Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina became believers. "When everything is secret, nothing is secret," Mr. Helms argued in 1997, championing a bill sponsored by Mr. Moynihan that was meant to revise how the U.S. creates and protects its classified information.

But despite significant progress on declassifying millions of old files, neither Congress nor the White House has done much to curtail the creation of new secrets, now running at about 20,000 a day. Newspaper stories often turn up classified. The CIA has stamped its total budget figure "secret," and protected that right in court. The agency refuses to release an 88-year-old recipe for invisible ink and directs its "declassifiers" to black out any mention of its overseas missions, including stunningly obvious ones in Moscow and Beijing.

Automatic Expiration Date

The Moynihan bill proposed stricter criteria for deeming information secret with an automatic 10- year expiration date, unless the president ordered otherwise. It also sought to open the classification system to greater public oversight. The bill bounced around the Senate for two years until it died last autumn, labeled by both the Pentagon and the CIA as a threat to national security. By then, the political atmosphere was already thick with allegations of shoddy security and nuclear espionage at the nation's weapons labs.

There have been some small but important steps forward. Most newly classified documents now have built-in expiration dates, often less than 10 years. And the number of officials with the power to create secrets has been whittled to 3,900 from 5,661 in 1993.

But protecting secrets remains complex and hugely expensive. The secrecy apparatus-- everything from background checks to security vaults-- costs taxpayers well over $5 billion a year, by the government's own account. Private companies doing government work often see costs jump by a third when a project is designated secret.

After sifting through millions of declassified documents, Thomas Blanton, who heads the National Security Archives at George Washington University, says that protecting the nation is rarely the motivation for stamping documents secret. The real reason, he claims, is for policy makers to "avoid the embarrassment" of having their deliberations and mistakes made public.

Copyright 2000 The Wall Street Journal

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